The Gay Bear. If you don’t know what this is, let me enlighten you.
Understandably, unless you live as a Gay male or have close friends who are, it’s entirely too easy to think I am writing of some homosexual bear that lives in the woods.
Which, in all honesty, isn’t too far from the reality.
A Bear, in Gay parlance, is a Gay man who has the appearance of being quite masculine looking. It gets much more complicated than this, however. Things that may signify a Bear include a heavy beard, shaved head, being quite stocky, and being on the hairier side of the body hair spectrum. They may be quite masculine or masculine-acting, or be as camp as a row of tents. Like their name-sake Bears tend to be solitary creatures, as in they may prefer the company of other Bears. The easiest way to spot one when out is to see a Bear flag, and many a Bear will be socialising nearby.
Other ingenious terms for different subsets of Bears include ‘Cubs’, or younger Bears [which our flatmates call my boyfriend and I, jokingly I’m sure], Otters, which are muscular Bears, as well as ‘Panda Bears’. Which needs no explanation.
Bear culture is something singular in itself in the LGBT world, as it is something that has traditionally been seen as a very tight-knit, not necessarily exclusive, yet not a subculture that lends itself to be quite all-inclusive to all types. There are numerous parties, publications and social organisations with regards to this sub-culture, which in my amateur Anthropologist eyes is rare to see these days. Gay culture can be a very judgemental. divisive place. It’s easy to feel insecure in yourself, your body image, your background and race, as well as even where you grew up.
There is, to this day, a lot of discrimination against all these things even in non-mainstream Gay culture. One only has to venture forth on the mingling pot that is Grindr or Scruff to witness the disturbingly dark side of Gay culture. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen ‘No Asians’, ‘No Queens or Fems’, or ‘Straight-Acting Only’ on peoples profiles.
This is an issue for another blogpost, yet with regards to Bear culture, it has always been a rather paradoxical thing. On the one hand, it IS an inclusive culture, as the archetype of the ‘Bear’ image which has been generally viewed as a negative by the rest of mainstream Gay culture, [being the stocky, hairy body image] had been embraced and seen as an axis of attraction.
Whereas the stereotypical image of Gay men has tended to be one of a waxed, buffed, preened and primped Adonis ideal of youthful perfection, Bear culture had successfully turned this on it’s own head and created it’s own diametrically opposing ‘laws of beauty’. The waxed chest, fine physic and youthful aspects of male beauty is replaced by one of masculinity-derived hirsuteness. Hairy faces, chests and yes a bit of a belly became signifiers of beauty in this world. To me, it became a reaction away from that ideal of perfection which is so unattainable for so many of us [msyself included]. Hence why I guess I’ve always admired this subculture.
In comparison to the party-going drug taking fiend that is the Twink or circuit muscle gay scene, being a Bear has been a relatively non-mainstream lifestyle, always in the shadows, while the ‘mainstream’ image of Gay masculinity has take centre stage. I’m talking the youthful, slightly androgynous clean shaven iconic ideal. Think ‘Jock’, ‘Abercrombie & Fitch’, Calvin Klein underwear models. This body image has been what the world perceives as ‘Gay’, and what the mainstream Gay culture has defined as the ideal archetype of Beauty and desirability. This has been the case since I can remember, even as a kid I was petrified the moment a stray hair leapt from my skin on my chest. I still recall a cousin having a similar freak-out when the same happened to him, and asking all the older boy cousins what he should do. Many of us waxed, shaved, or used that horrible anti-hair cream to get rid of that oh so unsightly beastly chest hair.
Fast Forward from the early 1990’s to now, and the situation has completely reversed. Hairy is manly. Hairy is good. No hair is seen as a negative. More men are growing beards, which has become a singular and standout trend in the last few years. More straight men, included. It’s becoming an almost default state to see a man in a beard as opposed to even two years ago.
Just the other day as I was walking to the station, a handsome fellow stopped me on the street to ask me about my beard, as well as tips and how long it took me to grow. I thought this guy was waving to someone behind me. This person would be someone that usually wouldn’t speak to me in public, like that cute guy from school you had a crush on but never talked to you, yet the one thing that drew us together was the hair on my face. This guy iterated to me that he had so much trouble growing his beard, asked about how long mine took to grow, and when I told him that my beard takes only a couple weeks to grow out [on account of my Italian heritage I guess], he stated his jealousy. I’ve never had anyone be envious of something I have no control over, which is something oddly amusing to me. Beard envy is the new penis envy.
Bear culture has, after decades of relative obscurity, become a focus for the mainstream. Without them even knowing it. Straight men have adopted and appropriated the signifiers of ‘Bear culture’, to the point where a genuine Bear and a bearded straight man are indistinguishable. Have a look at a lot of AFL players, lots of them have started sporting beards and close-cropped haircuts.
So, what has happened to Bear culture?
It crossed over, that’s what happened. Mainstream culture, both straight and Gay, have now appropriated the signifiers of Bearish masculinity; Unshaven, hirsute and liberated follicles are all seen as desirable, ‘in’ and the very height of ‘de jour’ trend at the moment as I write this. Boys are walking around town with many a beard, which has become popularised through things like ‘Movember’.
Within Bear culture, a change also seems to be appearing.
While I’ve never claimed to be a part of this movement, I’ve been aware of it’s existence long enough to have seen some changes. I’ve admired Bears for basically not giving a shit about what the rest of the LGBT community may think of them, as well as how they have successfully created their own set of tenets of male body image. As opposed to the very core of this sub-culture being a rejection of the mores of homosexual identity being based on the cliched Adonis principle of male beauty, there are more and more individuals out the who have reclaimed the image of ‘Bearishness’ and have made it their own. As something that gains popularity gains traction and steam, so the potency of the original intent becomes more and more diluted. There appears now to be new offshoots of this original sub-culture, as it has become immensely popularised within the gay community. Is it simply a new wave of Gay men who identify and find solace in the ethos of the Bear subculture, or basically people jumping on the bandwagon?
In my experience, I’ve found people of this subculture to be both the most welcoming people, and also at times as divisive and judgemental as any other close-knit community. The same as any other group of people the world over. Like any other movement that was born out of a reaction, and rejection, this subculture has changed, evolved and now become a focus for the rest of the Gay world. Bears are seen as a commodity, a new object of desirability born from the change in the definition of ‘Beauty’. I once heard a little story from an acquaintance who once was told by a younger Gay man that ‘Bears’ were hot, but only the ‘muscly’ ones. This one statement shows how the image of the Bear has changed from one of being generally stocky and unshaven and a little rough round the edges to a much more polished [yet still hairy in the right places] muscular one of Porn Stars with fine chiselled jaws, clear eyes and a more presentable visage.
Masculinity, once again, has become a goal or the means for legitimising one’s verility and status as a man. One may be Gay, yet one doesn’t need to look or act like it. This is a common trope that is appearing more and more in the LGBT community. The men these days are a lot more handsome, there may be more of them, and all have the obligatory full and rich beards.
Yet is it only just the same old crowd who have simply walked away from their razors, pots of wax and and tubes of depilatory creams, and taken this new ‘look’, like a fad or trend? Or has the original message and point of Bear culture finally sunk in, being that Gay men don’t have to pertain to a certain image? Like the much more underground Queer subculture, the Bear movement has for decades been relatively in the shadows and kept to itself. Yet now days it seems that the world can’t get enough of the Gay Bear.
Like any other trend and fad, beards and Bears will once again recede from the spotlight, as more and more men ditch the beard for the next trend. I do see many a fellow sporting ridiculous Top Knots. Another friend has noticed since the last six months that more and more men are going back to being clean shaven, and also stated that maybe the ‘Beardpocalypse’ is nigh. Is the Bearish ideal and archetype here to stay, or will it be simply another trend that has reached saturation, only to be ditched by all?